In 2017, there were 4.9 billion metric tons of plastic debris in landfills and natural environments. Since then, we’ve produced an alarming 300 million tons of plastic every single year, 50% of which is single-use plastic. One of the most common plastics is PET plastic. PET is all around us. Water and soda bottles, plastic food packaging for salad dressings, nut butters, and cooking oils, cleaning products, and hygiene products are all made from PET.
Although PET plastic is generally recyclable in most forms, very little of it is. In 2016, only an estimated 29% of PET plastic in the U.S. was recycled. Since China stopped accepting other countries’ plastic for recycling in 2018, many municipalities in the U.S. have stopped collecting plastic recycling altogether. Even the little plastic that is recycled is often either rejected or has a limited lifespan. The issue with plastic is that once it is recycled, the composition of the material is damaged. Unlike glass, plastic cannot be recycled indefinitely. When PET plastic is recycled, it turns a grey or black color that is unappealing for most products, so it’s most often used to make carpet. After the carpet has lived out its usefulness, it ends up in the landfill, therefore only increasing the lifespan of the plastic by a few years.
Scientists have been trying to develop a new method to recycle PET plastic in a way that would bring it closer to the circular model of glass recycling. Although there are many methods for breaking down plastic, nothing has brought us close to being able to break down plastic and reuse it for various products, until now. A new study published in the journal Nature, led by scientists from the French company Carbios, has identified a new enzyme that will bring PET plastic closer than it’s ever been to a circular model.
The enzyme was initially discovered in 2012 in a pile of decomposing leaves when the scientists began screening various micro-organisms as potential candidates. After extensive research, the scientists from Carbios engineered the enzyme to break down PET plastics back into the plastic’s building blocks. These building blocks, or monomers, can then be processed back into bottles or other packaging without compromising the makeup. During testing, Carbios used the enzyme to achieve a 90% degradation of a metric ton of PET plastic in ten hours. This will change plastic consumption as we know it.
The innovative company has already been backed by Pepsico, Nestle, and L’Oreal. Although the engineered enzyme is still strictly in the testing phase, the company has high hopes for the future. In an interview with The Guardian, Deputy Chief Executive Stephan Martin revealed that the “goal is to be up and running by 2024, 2025, at large industrial scale.” The company is also working on creating biodegradable plastics by inserting the enzyme directly into the finished PET product, so if it does end up in the trash rather than at one of their recycling plants, it won’t take upwards of 450 years to degrade as it does now.
Carbios’ new technology has the potential to be world-changing. However, until it’s released to the public, the planet still needs our help. I encourage you to take the time to research your neighborhood recycling program, or if you don’t have one look into finding a nearby drop-off! A lot of the plastic that is sent to the recycling plant ends up being incinerated due to incorrect plastic practices, so make sure to find out how your program requires you to prepare your recyclables, and which plastics are accepted. Keep learning and keep speaking up, together we can stop the waste stream.
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Photo: Lacey Williams on Unsplash